More so than those in other professional services strands, lawyers rank sexual harassment and misconduct as an issue of “great importance” in determining who they will vote for in the looming federal election.
In December 2021, the Momentum Intelligence Insight Survey was conducted, exploring the political leanings of sector participants in legal services, mortgage lending, financial advice and wealth management, real estate, aviation, defence and national security.
A total of 360 lawyers, spanning all voting-age demographics, responded to the survey as part of a total of 3,257 responses.
Late last month, Lawyers Weekly reported that law is the only professional services sector out of the aforementioned seven surveyed by Momentum Intelligence that is trending towards the ALP and Anthony Albanese.
Here, Lawyers Weekly detailed why legal professionals are planning to vote for Albanese, by almost a 2:1 margin, and here, we unpack what political issues are most important to lawyers when casting their votes.
Sexual harassment as an important election consideration
As part of the survey, all respondents were asked to indicate which issues are “most important” to them when deciding who to vote for in the federal election. Respondents could select as many issues as were listed.
The economy (70 per cent) was identified most commonly as an issue of importance for voters across the aforementioned seven professional services strands, followed by climate change and the environment (49 per cent), taxation and small business interests (both 47 per cent), and defence and national security (40 per cent).
Of the 14 issues to select from, sexual harassment and misconduct ranked 12th among all respondents, with only one in five (22 per cent) deeming it an issue of importance.
When broken down by two-party preference, 44 per cent of Labor-leaning voters see sexual harassment and misconduct as a “most important” issue, compared to just 10 per cent of Coalition-leaning voters.
Lawyers, however, see it slightly differently, with three in 10 (29 per cent) seeing it as a “most important” issue when casting their votes.
Legal professionals feel much more strongly about this particular voting issue when compared to accountants (19 per cent see it as an important issue), aviation professionals (20 per cent), defence and national security professionals (18 per cent), financial services professionals (15 per cent), mortgage brokers (13 per cent) and real estate agents (19 per cent).
Responses from the profession
Hall & Wilcox partner Fay Calderone, who last year won Wellness Advocate of the Year at the Partner of the Year Awards, said that lawyers are “alive to the devastation” that sexual harassment and related misconduct can have, together with the “catastrophic impact this can have on our people, firms, cultures and flow on impact on performance as dysfunction perpetuates”.
“For years, we have been striving to achieve a more diverse, healthy and inclusive profession and we know we cannot do this if we tolerate sexual harassment. Gender diversity and inclusion is also a notable voting consideration for our profession just behind sexual harassment and related misconduct at 28 per cent,” she advised.
“There is simply no place for sexual harassment it in our profession, our Parliament, workplaces and broader community. It is a stain on our society that it continues to be such an endemic problem and we expect more from our leaders in addressing it.”
Reflecting on why legal professionals might be more concerned with sexual harassment and related misconduct and thus see it as an issue of significance for the looming election, Sydney-based barrister Jane Needham SC – who practises at 13th floor St James’ Hall and spoke on The Lawyers Weekly Show about the unpaid hours worked by women lawyers – mused that it is “not surprising” for lawyers have a keen awareness of such issues.
This is because, she said, advocacy in this space has positioned the conversation as “both an ethical and a workplace safety issue”.
Both Ms Needham and Australian Women Lawyers (AWL) president Leah Marrone, who is also a barrister at Flinders Chambers in Adelaide, suggested that sustained campaigns from AWL and the Law Council of Australia in tackling workplace harassment and profession-wide attrition have “had an effect” – particularly, Ms Marrone said, given the increase in compulsory or free CPD sessions on these important topics.
“I also think that the reports of sexual harassment in the High Court from former associates of Dyson Heydon have really brought to the forefront this issue and when we see these things in our highest court, in such a [hierarchical] profession, I think people are finally taking the issue seriously,” she added.
“The profession can’t dismiss the issue as ‘a few bad eggs’ anymore, the time for cultural change is now.”
According to Law Council president Tass Liveris, there is “widespread and genuine support” across the legal profession for action to be taken to address sexual harassment.
“Sexual harassment is inconsistent with the inherent values of the Australian legal profession, the principles informing the administration of justice, and the pursuit of integrity, fairness and equality before the law,” he declared.
“The legal profession has been acting on this issue for some time, particularly in relation to its collection of data, however, more remains to be done.”
“The Law Council has been consulting with members on the issues they would like to see major parties address during the election campaign, and in line with your survey, these include funding for legal aid and community legal centres and establishment of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.”
Her Lawyer founder Courtney Bowie, who spoke on The Lawyers Weekly Show in 2019 about breaking away from the “boys club” in law, said that recent media revelations, such as those against the former High Court judge and in Parliament House, will have “resonated strongly” with many lawyers.
Particularly those, she said, “who have endured the same experiences”.
“Lawyers not only have the lived experience, but also the knowledge of how the system works, to know that the most significant change will only be achieved when it comes from the top,” Ms Bowie submitted.
“Individual voices that were lost, unheard or silenced have joined together into organised and informed communities and are now calling for change at the top levels of government, including by using their vote.”
With “what appears to be fairly evenly weighted male and female responses” to the survey, beaton partner Kim Wiegand pointed out, it is pleasing to see, she said, that sexual harassment and misconduct are high on the list of important issues for the legal profession.
“We need more male champions of change to stand up and proclaim that this behaviour is not tolerated,” she proclaimed.
“Quite distinctly different voting preferences from the legal profession, coupled with sexual harassment and misconduct as an important issue, perhaps demonstrates a lack of confidence in the current government’s ability to tackle this very important issue.”
There are now more women in the legal profession than men, Ms Wiegand continued.
“Coupled with an increasing number of men standing against sexual harassment, I hope this highlights that a wave of change is coming and an end to the systemic sexual harassment and misconduct which has plagued our industry for too long,” she said.
Ms Calderone concluded: “We need bystanders to act and leaders to call #notonmywatch. If we expect it from business leaders, we are entitled to insist upon it from politicians and our judiciary.
“Enough is enough.”